The man in the driver’s seat of community/infrastructure resilience

The Black Summer bushfires have put out a whole new lens on local infrastructure resilience says a civil engineer eminently qualified to know.

Warren Sharpe OAM is Eurobodalla Shire Council’s Director of Infrastructure Services, and he was also the shire’s Emergency Management Officer during the fires that left local communities throughout the NSW South Coast local government area traumatised and fearful of the future.

For the record, 80 percent of the Eurobodalla LGA was burnt out; three rural landowners were killed, and 501 homes destroyed. Over 1100 outbuilding were damaged or destroyed.

In local infrastructure terms, 490km of council roads were impacted, 19 council bridges destroyed or damaged, and the Princes and Kings Highways – major access roads into and out of the shire – were closed for an extended time.

“We would be hit by a firestorm and then I’d be in the field talking to residents and gathering firsthand information about what was going to be the next challenge that we would be faced with,” Mr Sharpe recalls of that time.

“Unfortunately, we were the most impacted LG in NSW. It’s not a list you want to be on.

“There’s no question that it has put a whole new lens on the resilience of infrastructure, and it issomething that we’re going have to look at as local government practitioners in a very different light going forward.”

How Mr Sharpe and his colleagues have dealt with the fires’ aftermath, the repairs and rebuilding tasks they have effected in the months since, and they steps they have taken to build resilience in fire-scarred communities will be a highlight of ALGA’s Special Local Roads and Transport Congress on 16-17 November.

In rebuilding and restoring roads and bridges, the council has sought to align emergency response objectives with those of increased freight efficiency, particularly in forestry areas – an approach that Mr Sharpe says has been readily achievable.

“We have done this with single-lane structures rather than going out and building Sydney Harbour bridges.

“These single-lane concrete bridges are HML compliant and we can deliver that efficiently, very quickly, and in small packages using local resources, so there are lots of good news stories that are coming out of our experience,” he says.

Boosting telecommunications resilience in the shire also has been accorded a high priority – along with efforts to secure future water supplies.

A proven record of resilience-building is crucial to reassuring communities where mental trauma still exists, Mr Sharpe says.

“We have fixed quite a few of those issues, so that’s just one notch off the Richter Scale in terms of stresses on our communities,” he said.

Mr Sharpe will give delegates to the LR&T Congress an overview of Eurobodalla’s bushfire responses and take part in a panel discussion on natural disaster impacts on infrastructure, transport and roads.